The English Teacher

How to help students choose
research paper topics.

Choosing an appropriate research topic is one of the most important steps in research writing. Beginning research writers are apt to make mistakes in choosing topics that cause them stress and result in more work for the instructor. The first year I began teaching research writing I gave students more free choice in their topics because I thought that they could judge suitable topics. At the sixth week of that first 13 week class I had a very competent "A" student break down in tears and tell me that she couldn't do her paper. Not too much later another student had similar problems and similar reactions. Both completed their papers successfully, with a lot of encouragement from me.

From those experiences I began to form the philosophy of a research writing teacher as a research writing coach. A good coach does not let players go into a game unprepared, where they will surely be defeated. In a research paper situation, with so many unknowns, a student often needs as much careful help as a team member.

The papers that my students wrote in WR123 were 20-25 typewritten pages long [see the research writing lesson plans]. I found that a paper of this length was optimum. For papers under 20 pages many students can play with words and not have content. Twenty-plus page papers without content begin to repeat information and lack of research becomes apparent. Students who can write a 20-25 page paper seem to pass a "writing barrier" and later can go on and write a 100 page paper. However, papers of more than 25 pages require so much time and labor on the teacher's part in proportion to benefits to students that such may well be avoided.

When choosing topics it may be advisable to avoid topics on sports, sports figures [stars], art, and music. With sports and sports figures there may be 25 sources, but they all may be 1/4" deep, meaning that they don't have much content and basically repeat what content they do have. Topics such as art, music, architecture don't translate from their "genre" to print very well. It is very difficult to describe in writing the qualities of a painting by Rembrandt or a symphony by Beethoven. I have had some very good students work at such topics and no one ever achieved an "A" paper, so I stopped allowing those topics.

Also it is well to avoid abstract topics [including religion] for a student's first research paper. The instructor may be able to handle such topics but for students it is a sufficient challenge to write a paper of this length without also trying to comprehend the Zen koan, "what is the sound of one hand clapping?" A further consideration for religious topics is that students often have so many values associated with religion that they are unable to be objective in their studies.

Teachers should avoid spending energy suggesting topics for students until they find one that the students like. Students can be assigned to hand to the teacher [on a full sheet of paper] five potential topics, listed in order of preference. From those topics the teacher can select a topic or ask the student to submit three more, topics, or five more topics, etc. until a suitable topic is found. [When the teacher knows the students' abilities from previous classes, some care can be taken to help students in choosing specific topics that are challenging, but not defeating.]

General topic considerations are: there should be enough information for 20-25 pages and there should be a variety of sources available. Therefore, topics that are currently in the media may not have had time for sources to develop. When New York Times correspondent James Reston was treated with acupuncture while covering President Nixon's historic trip to China in 1972, many students became interested in acupuncture as a research paper topic. However, at that time there were not enough sources on acupuncture to write a lengthy paper. Within several years sufficient information was published and today, there are many, many sources available on the topic.

[Note also that topics which have only one main "definitive" source should be avoided so that the research paper does not appear to simply be an ambitious book report.]

With these limitations, there are many topics to choose from. Students can do biographical papers on historical figures. War is a topic often suggested, but students should be aware that World War II is a 20,000 page topic and needs to be narrowed to one battle, etc. Slavery in the U.S. or other countries may be interesting to some as would nuclear power, euthanasia, and drug research but all need to be limited in time and place. Body building drugs, stem cell research, and civil rights may also be looked at. The topics depend on resources available and the capacity of the students to do the work.

Finally teachers should factor themselves into the topic selection process. It should be remembered that teachers often have to become almost as involved in the topics as the students in order to help them choose a thesis and organize the paper properly. Topics such as child abuse, tortures, serial killers, etc. may be more than some want to dwell on. For instance, I have had papers done on plagues that had memorable physical descriptions, and if a teacher finds such topics too depressing, they are entitled to avoid them. Also topics that a teacher would normally be bored with should be avoided for the student's sake, as also topics that have been written on many times before and might suffer in comparison with past papers.

Teaching research paper writing can ask much of students and teachers alike, but it also gives commensurate satisfaction. When students go on to other classes and report back their successes in easily writing papers that other students find difficult and when they go on to occupations where they are praised for their report writing, instructors can share in the accomplishment. Writing well is a skill that continues to benefit people year after year. From that point of view, it is worth the time and effort to teach research writing with care.

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